“Street Court is going to give me the opportunity to get my life back together. I can move forward and the sky is the limit. I can keep pushing from here.” — Cedric, Street Court client
It’s been 20 years since Cedric has had a driver’s license. It’s not that he hasn’t driven in all those years. In fact, he has. That’s part of the problem.
The resulting court costs from driving without a license have piled up through the years. It’s an amount that Cedric has been unable to pay for years. But because he wants to get to work and to move about in a town with inadequate public transportation, it looked like the citations, criminal record and fines would continue to build. And they would continue to be an insurmountable barrier between Cedric and a good job.
“I work as a temp in a company where full-time means using a company vehicle. I can’t perform all of my duties, because they can’t get me on their insurance and they won’t let me operate a motor vehicle. It hinders me from everything.”
It’s become a familiar story at Street Court, an effort led by the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office, in cooperation with the General Sessions Criminal Court Clerk’s office and Judge Karen Massey. Created to serve the legal needs for Project Homeless Connect, the first two Street Courts helped a total of 60 people seek relief from old court costs and fines.
This week, Street Court assisted an unprecedented number of indigent clients — more than 200 people were granted waivers.
“The main thing to remember is that the county would never see this money. These are people unable to pay the fines, often because the fines are keeping them from gainful employment,” said Chris Martin, Street Court coordinator for the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office. “The county would likely spend more resources trying to collect that money. So the enforcement of these fines and the limitations these citizens have from not being able to drive or find work has a larger economic impact on the community than the debt relief itself.”
Shelby County Assistant Public Defender Cathy Anderson Kent volunteered her time to Street Court, because she knows that contact with the criminal justice system has an impact far beyond time served in jail. Kent says she regularly argues for alternatives to incarceration or reduced jail time in certain cases, because taxpayers foot the bill for incarceration and the individual can carry the debt of jail fees for life.
“These are people who now cannot get housing, loans and licensing because they owe government court costs,” said Kent. “Sometimes, a break like Street Court is all it takes so they can move on and do something with their lives.”
Inside Street Court
The first Street Court in November 2012 resulted in fee waivers for 20 people. The second Street Court in February of this year doubled that amount. A third was held in March of 2013 with the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law Alternative Spring Break. That event helped 75 people.
The most recent Street Court outpaced all expectations, providing relief for 202 people.
This fast-paced streamlining of the justice system to clear the docket quickly is an unprecedented effort in Shelby County. It’s made possible by dozens of volunteers. Two weeks ago staff from the public defender’s office organized a free clinic offering legal consultations to hundreds of people at Project Homeless Connect in the Cook Convention Center.
The clinic was made possible by volunteers from the Memphis Bar Association, Memphis Area Legal Services, Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the University of Memphis Public Action Law Society.
The following week saw hearings on motions to waive costs and fines for each client at the Criminal Justice Center. A team of legal professionals volunteered their time to prepare thousands of cost waivers and sworn statements of low-income status. Private attorney, Ruchee Patel, even helped the team design a new automated intake system. Then for two solid afternoons, clients appeared before Judge Karen Massey accompanied by attorneys from the public defender’s office.
Dozens of people left the courtroom, newly freed from debt and hopeful that this could mean a new chapter.
Debt Forgiveness: Two Success Stories
Janice Taylor is keenly aware of the debilitating effects of accumulated court costs. Taylor is the Director of Operations for Baptist Hospital’s Outreach for the Homeless. Her mobile health unit has been at every Project Homeless Connect, and she is witness to how the right kind of help can set good things in motion.
Taylor says she knows of at least two mobile health unit patients who visited Street Court at Project Homeless Connect last year and are now off the street. Both men had significant debt from court costs and fines. Both men could not regain their driver’s licenses because of the outstanding debts. Without licenses, one man could not get work and the second man, who owned a construction company, could not renew his construction license.
After their fees were forgiven at the last Street Court, both men were eligible to have their driver’s licenses reinstated. Taylor says the first now has two jobs and, with the help of a relative, is in his own home. The second has regained his construction license and his company.
“It’s been a wonderful thing to be a part of Project Homeless Connect and to have legal help here. We are providing all of these services under one roof to help and assist the homeless people in our community,” said Taylor. “It can help people get their lives back.”
Kirsten Townsend is a legal secretary with the public defender’s office. While volunteering with Project Homeless Connect, she heard the story of the two men who were able to get work and homes, largely because of Street Court. For Townsend, it validated everything about why she has worked for the public defender’s office for more than two decades.
“It made me feel proud and I want to make sure everyone knows they are making differences in peoples’ lives,” said Townsend. “It can change lives totally around… and it touches your own life.”
After Street Court
Cedric, the client who hasn’t had his driver’s license since the early 90’s, knows that he could not actually get his license reinstated through Street Court. He understands he must still go through the Department of Safety for that.
What it means is court fees that had kept him ineligible for reinstatement … are now gone.
The rest is of this story is up to him.
“If I can get my license now, I can move forward in my job,” said Cedric. “It’s a big step up even for me to get a license, because then I can move about freely without always being worried about being pulled over. This is a big day for me.”